A downtown Chattanooga ministry targeted as a magnet for late-night violence and rowdiness by young people now has drawn the wrath of the mayor.
"It's just a bizarre situation, and one that we do not intend to suffer with for very long," Ron Littlefield said of Club Fathom, a mission outreach of the Mosaic Church.
In a meeting two weeks ago, Mr. Littlefield told pastor Tim Reid to stop his Saturday night activities or the city would close the 412 Market St. establishment.
"I told him frankly that I felt like he was running a business masquerading as a church," the mayor said in an interview Tuesday. "If we have to continue to spend resources on police, we'll take it to court and get it declared a public nuisance, just as we've done with other such nuisances."
Mr. Reid claims the mayor told him he would shut down the establishment if his "urban youth" outreach didn't stop. He said he thinks the term "urban youth" refers to black youth.
"He told me that he's going to find out who my supporters are, call them and talk to them, and things are going to change," he said.
"The 'urban youth' that come to our place are really great kids," Mr. Reid said. "The ones causing the problems are the ones outside."
Club Fathom and Mosaic Church offer a bit of everything - break dancing, art classes, prayer and concerts. Since opening in 2003, the club has come under fire from the city, the police and nearby businesses that question its practices and the violence occurring outside it.
Meetings among city officials and Mr. Reid did little to address the stabbings and shootings in nearby parking lots on weekends. Finally, after two shootings in less than two months, city officials had enough.
Mr. Reid hesitantly agreed to halt events that would attract young people through the end of summer, including an annual back-to-school bash.
The compromise is a short-term solution, said Mr. Reid, who plans to resume those events in the fall.
The mayor said Mr. Reid's compromise is not good enough. So the city is looking into Mr. Reid's finances to determine where his $6 admission fees and concession sales go.
For the fiscal year ending June 2008, Fathom claimed $78,599 in total revenue and listed $78,893 in expenses, according to its nonprofit tax form filed with the IRS. That's a loss of $294, but Fathom had more than $11,000 in net assets from the previous year to cover the loss, according to the form.
Mr. Reid said he makes money through his lawn care business and does not take a salary through the church. The Hamilton County Clerk's office on Friday said it had no record of a business owned by a Tim Reid.
The city also is trying to determine who is responsible for events in the building and whether Mr. Reid legally can lease it to other people for parties, as he has in the past, the mayor said.
Mr. Reid said he rents the building to nonchurch members for weddings for $250 and allows fundraisers to be held there free of rent.
And he said his church is not the only one that hosts concerts and charges admission, though the audience he targets may be a different, underserved crowd.
The building at 412 Market St. is owned by Beverly Henry, the wife of Chattanooga attorney Jim Henry, according to the deed. As he has since 2002, Mr. Henry declined to talk to the Chattanooga Times Free Press about Fathom.
But Mr. Henry told the mayor he does not know whether he and Mr. Reid have a written lease agreement or whether Mr. Reid is allowed to lease the building to other patrons, Mr. Littlefield said.
"The fuzziness of how it exists makes me very uncomfortable, and the last conversation I had with Tim Reid I told him I'm holding him personally responsible because he won't tell me any other individuals who are responsible for it," the mayor said.
Mr. Reid said that although he cares about his patrons, he can't baby-sit them when they leave.
"I have a heart for everyone that comes in, but I can't follow everybody home," he said.
Parking lot violence
In the last two months, two shootings occurred in parking lots behind Club Fathom and near the downtown police precinct.
Mr. Reid said no violent incidents have occurred in the club or its parking lot. The shooting in June occurred because young people wandered downtown after Riverbend's Bessie Smith Strut.
Since 2007, police have responded to 34 calls for service at 412 Market St., department records show. In the city blocks in back of the club, officers have responded to 314 calls since 2007.
"I've been personally involved since 2006, when Tim Reid and myself met with the mayor concerning issues that were happening at the conclusion of events that were occurring at Club Fathom," Chattanooga police Chief Freeman Cooper said. "And that problem has continued until current issues at the location."
Mr. Reid thinks the police department is understaffed if it cannot handle a large crowd on a weekend night.
And he challenges the notion that Club Fathom is the sole attraction downtown.
"I would love to take all the credit that young adults love to come downtown (because of Fathom), but I think they also come to see movies, the arts, the bars," Mr. Reid said.
But no other venue releases such a large group of patrons at one time or has violence issues after closing, Chief Cooper said.
The parking lot directly behind the club contains fewer than 30 spaces, too few for the 1,000-plus people the business legally can hold. So patrons park in other lots, then walk to them in large numbers when Fathom closes, the chief said. The situation has led to many violent incidents dating back to the early part of the decade and continuing this summer, he said.
When people get stabbed or shot near Fathom, the entire midnight shift for the downtown precinct must respond, keeping officers from patrolling other areas, Chief Cooper said.
"The unfairness of it is for a business to hold an event, make money off an event and then, when it's over, close the doors, go home and leave the patrons in parking lots," Chief Cooper said. "It's unfair for him to think he can put 300 to 1,000 people down there for us to worry about. He brought them there, so he's responsible for them and should have liability for them."
Unum officials briefly discussed with the mayor the possibility of fencing parking lots where youth loiter on weekends. But the insurance company has been pleased with the increased police presence in its lots, spokeswoman M.C. Guenther said.
"We don't believe that is going to be necessary given the response of the city police," she said.
church or club?
The city does not question the legitimacy of the Mosaic Church's Sunday morning services or its weekday activities. But officials do debate the status of Club Fathom as a mission outreach of the church.
Neither Mr. Reid nor the organization's tax forms claim that the establishment is a church.
Mr. Reid calls the establishment a performing arts center. Its tax form lists it as an organization that receives more than a third of its support from contributions, membership fees and gross receipts from activities related to charitable functions.
A few Mosaic churches meet in a nontraditional setting such as a nightclub, said Neil Nakamoto, the Mosaic Alliance liaison in the church's administrative offices in Pasadena, Calif.
Trying to get a nuisance abatement against a church may present a different challenge than closing a nightclub. But Mr. Littlefield said he is prepared to address that.
During a recent interview, he handed over a flier advertised on Fathom's MySpace page. It's dated April 2, 2009, promotes a beach-themed party and features a scantily clad woman and raunchy language.
"I think if I show this in court, it will become less challenging," the mayor said. "I don't know many preachers or boards of elders that would allow their church to be leased out for something like that."
Mr. Reid said the flier was created by people who hacked into the club's MySpace page.
On July 24, Fathom scheduled four performances, including a rap duo and a rock band. An hour after the doors opened, only two potential patrons had walked through the front door. Both left after learning the bands would not take the stage on time.
It's hit-or-miss, weekend manager Jessica Holt said. Sometimes the bands draw large crowds; sometimes nights are slow.
"We don't want to stop, because so many people continue to share their art form," she said. "We want to be that for this community."
Rap duo Kayfabe from Fort Oglethorpe was disappointed about the poor turnout.
Gary Carpenter said he had never been to Fathom before, but wanted to start promoting the duo.
"We decided Fathom was the place to do it, because any good band plays here," he said.
The duo's manager, Leon Ledford, said he had attended several events at Fathom and never has seen any violence - just an occasional large mosh pit.
On Sunday and Tuesday evenings, five to 10 members of the local break dancing group Cyphur Addic gather inside Mosaic to practice their moves.
Member Lavon Gunn, 23, said places to practice, especially indoors, are hard to find.
"It's basically free, and you can't beat the free-ness of it," he said.
Mr. Gunn said he's attended several concerts at Fathom and never seen violent patrons, just young people who want to have a good time.
A youth problem
If Fathom closed, Chattanooga's youth would infiltrate another location, said Hugh Reece, director of community outreach for the Hamilton County Coalition.
Instead of tearing Fathom down, the city and county should explore ways to help it achieve its mission, he said.
"What (Mr. Reid) is trying to do is worthwhile and is something the kids know about and the kids enjoy," Mr. Reece said. "Instead of trying to shut him down, they need to try to help him to make the situation better."
The problems at Fathom show a larger problem of violent youth and a city that doesn't know how to cope with them, he said. The city and county should offer juvenile holding facilities where truants or those out past curfew can be housed until their parents are called, he said.
"(The youth are) hollering for help, but no one's there to hear them," Mr. Reece said.
Don Rodgers, who lives on Cherry Street behind 212 Market, said he's never been bothered by the groups of young people congregating in the parking lots. But he is concerned about their safety.
"I just don't want some kids to get killed down there," he said. "I do think any organization that has children after hours ... has some responsibility to take care of the children."
At a recent meeting of the Riverfront Business & Resident Partnership, Mr. Reid discussed concerns about Fathom. He said he received support from local business leaders.
In a statement, the partnership said any activity attracting teens with guns needs to be reconsidered.
"Any activity that allows teens to gather past the established city curfew is breeding illegal behavior," the statement said. "We have invested far too much as a community in building a tourist-friendly, family-friendly district to allow this to continue."